Under COVID-19, Penn State Outreach delivers meaningful experiences

November 12, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When COVID-19 forced Penn State to move courses to remote delivery in March, there was another part of the University that also had significant decisions to make. Penn State Outreach and its wide portfolio of programs that serve audiences of all ages, also found itself questioning how to continue to provide services to its constituencies across the commonwealth. 

During the Board of Trustees Committee meeting on Outreach, Development and Community Relations on Nov. 12, Tracey Huston, vice president for Penn State Outreach, shared updates and accomplishments by Outreach units and showcased how each was able to pivot in innovative ways to continue to provide meaningful programming and experiences for students and communities.  

“During one of the most challenging times in the University’s history, Penn State Outreach showed it was capable of adaptive strategies to serve our constituencies,” said Huston. “This was done through a combination of evidence-based translation of COVID-19 content, remote programming, social justice content development and delivery, student engagement in a virtual world and other innovative methods. Through demonstrations of resilience, compassion and innovative action, the people and units of Penn State Outreach rose to the occasion to positively support and impact those whom we serve.”

Resilient, innovative programming pivots

In early August, all sessions from the National Autism Conference, normally held on the University Park campus, were moved online due to the coronavirus pandemic and offered free of charge. The 60 virtual sessions provided comprehensive, evidence-based information to assist educators, other professionals and families in developing effective educational programming for all students living with autism spectrum disorders. Several sessions addressed the pandemic’s impact on services and caregivers, including being at home with children all day, working collaboratively with schools and managing new challenges in the COVID-19 environment. More than 4,100 people representing 28 states and seven countries participated in the conference online.

In July, Penn State’s Justice and Safety Institute graduated its 58th class of newly hired sheriffs and sheriff’s deputies from all of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties. But, for a time, when the coronavirus pandemic shut down the state’s Penn State-run academy in March, questions arose about how the classwork — which routinely includes first responder/first aid, defensive tactics and physical training — might continue. But thanks to the collaboration between the University and the state of Pennsylvania, the program restarted in June with a COVID-19 safety plan. That plan condensed 10 weeks of training, normally held Mondays through Fridays, into six weeks held every day. It also incorporated the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Pennsylvania Department of Health and Penn State guidelines, including mask wearing, personal protective equipment procurement and physical distancing when possible. 

Student engagement in a virtual world

Students in the Bachelor of Landscape Architecture program at Penn State made the community their classroom earlier this year by designing a system of restorative and interactive public spaces in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Hazelwood. In a collaboration among the Penn State Center Pittsburgh, the College of Arts and Architecture and most importantly, the Hazelwood community, the program encouraged residents to make their voices heard concerning changes in civic landscape that would be beneficial to them, as well as protect the rich history of the post-industrial neighborhood. Students had the opportunity to speak with Hazelwood residents, understand their concerns, needs and wishes, and translate those into thoughtful design. When COVID-19 restrictions went into effect, students finalized their projects by inviting online critique and refinement from the Hazelwood community. The projects resulted in ideas to meaningfully repurpose and revitalize areas within Hazelwood. 

The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at Penn State turned necessary COVID-19 restrictions into opportunities online. OLLI is a membership organization offering affordable courses, trips and social activities geared toward adults who are 50 years and older, an age group considered more susceptible to the dangers of COVID. When in-person activities were canceled in March, OLLI members and volunteers decided to try something new: an all-online platform. Successful programs included virtual tours of the Penn State Breazeale Reactor and virtual trips to Italy and Hawaii. By following three guiding principles — staying in touch with members to keep them informed and engaged; focusing on learning by providing prerecorded and live programing; and keeping members connected with each other, OLLI provided meaningful experiences in ways that kept members safe. 

Social justice content development and delivery

The Penn State Center Philadelphia, Center for Immigrants’ Rights Clinic (CIRC), and faculty in the Department of Agricultural Economics, Sociology and Education at Penn State worked with students in Penn State Law on a project designed to address the needs of immigrant communities in the context of COVID-19. The project involved the development of a comprehensive list of frequently asked questions (FAQ) that would be used to assist organizations working with immigrants. Food chain workers and farmworkers, many of whom are immigrants, are among those most at risk for COVID-19 and feel vulnerable because of their immigration status. This can be due to delays in immigration benefit interviews, health and safety concerns in detention, fears about seeking medical care because of immigration status and delays in hearings at immigration courts. In some cases, they may have been laid off because of the pandemic and experienced increased economic and food insecurity. The delivery of the FAQ document helped provide critical information to thousands in the immigrant population across Pennsylvania.

Students using AI for good

Students in the Nittany AI Alliance used artificial intelligence to analyze how COVID-19 was affecting the number of people who teleworked and the impact it was having on the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, or SEPTA. Working remotely, students used AI to look at the structural shift in the commuting habits of Philadelphia’s labor force as teleworkers relied less on commuter rail, subways or buses to commute. Their goal was to deliver a working model that could assist SEPTA in creating a viable business plan with the hope that AI could provide more nuanced forecasts of future public transportation trends. Those estimates will assist SEPTA in determining what transport demand will return, and potentially adjust services accordingly. In return, students received real-world working experience, as well as providing a lasting benefit to Philadelphia commuters. 

Other innovative ways to serve

collection of PBS and WPSU educational resources to help support educators, students and families as they adapted to remote learning and teaching became available earlier this year, due to a partnership between the Pennsylvania Department of Education and the state’s seven public media stations, including WPSU. The curated resources for public media’s Learning at Home initiative included hours of free educational and entertaining videos, activities and games, and offered communities with limited internet access use of instructional TV programming. Through the partnership, caregivers and educators could also visit the WPSU Learning Families Resources website to view free videos, lessons and activities geared toward children of all ages that supported learning at home. WPSU serves more than 515,000 households and 105 school districts in 24 counties in central Pennsylvania. 


Last Updated November 12, 2020